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HomeCollecting StrategiesCoin Collecting Strategies: Building the Ultimate 20th-Century Type Set, Part 1: Small...

Coin Collecting Strategies: Building the Ultimate 20th-Century Type Set, Part 1: Small Cents

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek …..
Today, we’d like to discuss building a truly remarkable 20th-century US Type set.

Type sets enable you to assemble a representative sampling of coins over a particular period of time, or of a particular type of coin. When we think of type sets, we usually think of finding common examples of each design (this is where the term “type coin” comes from). If that’s your approach, then assembling a 20th-century type set isn’t particularly challenging. Many of the coins are still in circulation, and Mint State specimens can be obtained for well under $100.

small_centsBut we believe that a 20th-century type set can be much more than that. Our Coin Collecting Strategies considered each and every series produced in the 20th-century to try to find coins that not only have real collector value and future potential but also represent the coinage of that era in such a way that they can serve as real teaching tools and a means to a much richer exploration of 20th-century coinage.

Each type is represented by coins that we find interesting, educational, and worthy of a world-class collection. There are no true rarities here. No gimmicks or novelty coins that are meant to stop you dead in your tracks. There are coins that people have come to expect and coins that might surprise.

And even if you don’t buy the exact coins we recommend, the spirit and logic of our coin-collecting strategies will serve you and the hobby well. For among the pieces that many consider common are uncommon treasures, intriguing stories, and important coins that need preservation and understanding.

So without further adieu, we present our version of the ultimate 20th-century type set.

Indian Head Cent (1901-1909)

The Scenario: The Indian Head cent wrapped up its 50-year run in 1909, leaving 11 business strike and nine Proof issues to consider when putting together a set. Adding to the complexity are color designations and the presence of cameo contrast on Proofs.

small_cents_indian_1888The 1909-S and 1908-S are the most sought after business strikes. They are the first branch mint cents, and they also have the first and third lowest business strike mintages in the series, respectively. Being struck in San Francisco increases the appeal since there are a lot of S-Mint collectors out there, and their proximity to the 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent doesn’t hurt. The 1909-S Indian Head type is actually much scarcer than the V.D.B., but the Indian Head, while popular, is no match for the widespread appeal of Brenner’s famous design.

In MS-65 Red, the 1909-S sells for between $4,000 and $5,200. The 1908-S runs from $2,200 to $3,000. There’s a wide range of permissible quality in MS-65 Red, so keep in mind that PQ (premium quality) coins aren’t going to be available at the low end of this scale. On the Proof side, prices are more or less consistent, with PR-65 CAM being the most expensive (well over $3,000 recently). Earlier dates (through 1904) tend to be more affordable at present, as later issues are bringing stronger bids.

Guidance: When putting together a “run-of-the-mill” 20th-century type set, the Indian Head series offers little difficulty. You might be tempted to go for a 1901-1909 Philly strike, but since we’re trying to build the ultimate set, the choice requires special consideration. Personally, we favor richly toned blues and magentas over red copper (think eye appeal and originality). Even if this means ignoring the two key dates (1908-S and 1909-S) in favor of a common date Proof – which, based on what we’ve seen, typically tones better – we find that eye-popping color sets a quality coin apart from its peers. The thoughtful selection of a majestic-looking, toned Indian Proof, when married to an equally vivid toned Lincoln Matte Proof (which we get to next), is what we’d strive to have in our ultimate set.

Cost: $2,000-$4,000

A Great Set on a Budget: Rockefeller or not, putting together a set any numismatist would be proud of is certainly possible. Try a common date (1901-1909) Indian cent in MS-64 RB, or splurge on an eye-appealing Proof in the $250-$400 range.

Lincoln Wheat V.D.B. (1909)

small_cents_1909svdbThe Scenario: The Lincoln cent is the longest running coin design in U.S. history. The type debuted in 1909, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, and remains in production to this day – although many (us included) wonder why. The series has a number of major and minor types, the first being the coin’s initial release, the Lincoln Wheat V.D.B. (“V.D.B.” being the initials of the coin’s designer Victor David Brenner).

The visibility of these initials caused professional jealousy and feigned controversy, so the United States Mint hastily removed them from the remaining dies and hubs. Before the change, however, Philadelphia had produced 27,995,000 pieces for circulation and some number of Proofs, and San Francisco had struck a paltry 484,000 pieces.

This makes the 1909-S V.D.B. the scarcest circulating issue of the Lincoln series.

Guidance: A truly exceptional type set would pass over the 1909-S V.D.B. in favor of the rare 1909 V.D.B. Proof, which has a disputed mintage ranging from around 400 to the oft-published total of 1,194 coins. Relative to demand, the coin is incredibly scarce. We also think that despite its high price, it has more upside than the 1909-S V.D.B.

Coins with great eye appeal don’t follow trends, they set them. A CAC-certified PR-64RD example with a carbon spot above the date brought close to $50,000. We surmise that the bidder thought it was undergraded. Dropping down to Red Brown, where several exceptional toners exist, prices recede by about 20%.

Nevertheless, if you’re not the kind of buyer that can spend luxury sedan money on a single coin, you have two remaining options of interest: the predictable 1909-S V.D.B., and the surprisingly tough 1909 V.D.B. Doubled Die Obverse.

There are several reasons why the 1909-S V.D.B. might be the obvious choice.

The 1909-S V.D.B. is essential to a Lincoln cent set and highly sought after by mainstream collectors. It also has more than a hundred years of historical association as being a desirable coin. It is typically the stopper for a lot of cent collectors, as the majority of them put together sets from circulation. The 1909-S V.D.B., despite what the weasely vendors of so-called “unsearched” rolls will tell you, hasn’t been found in circulation with any regularity since the 1950s. This flips the coin’s price into the $800 to $1200 range – and that’s for even the most undesirable grades.

Mint State coins, by comparison, sell for 50% to 200% more in grades through MS-64. At this price point, the funnel of collectors who can afford such coins narrows, and available supply exceeds demand.

On the other hand, the 1909 V.D.B. Doubled Die Obverse is harder to come by and costs roughly the same as the 1909-S V.D.B. in Mint State Red. The segment of the market interested in scarce die varieties is smaller, of course, but a set builder should make an exception and go for the dark horse coin because it’s a first year issue variety with naked eye doubling and supply will never keep up with the coin’s growing collector base.

Bottom Line: The best coin is a monster: the 1909 V.D.B. Proof. If you need to tone it down, go with the 1909-S V.D.B. and work out the best deal you can get. If you’re feeling adventurous, go for a P-Mint DDO in MS-65 Red or better. Avoid the utterly common 1909-P V.D.B.

Lincoln Wheat sans V.D.B. (1909-1917)

The Scenario: After removing Brenner’s initials from the Lincoln cent midway through 1909, production resumed at full pace. The Denver Mint began to strike cents in 1911, so this series saw production at all three mint branches.

A mintage of just over one million makes the 1914-D the scarcest circulation strike of this period. San Francisco issues are also popular and are priced well above common date Philadelphia and Denver releases through the year 1915.

Guidance: While the 1914-D seems like the way to go (it’s scarce, desirable, and hard to find attractive and in Mint State), it’s the 1915 Proof that we believe has the most potential. It all boils down to two numbers: 745 and 273.

745 is the total number of Mint State 1914-Ds that PCGS has certified since they opened up shop in 1985. 273 is the total number of 1915 Proofs certified in the same time frame. When you consider that only 1,150 Lincoln cent Proofs were struck only in 1915, you can see why it’s the obvious choice. The market for Lincoln Matte Proofs has plenty of room for growth

The 1914-D in better grades is already priced beyond what most collectors can afford. There are far too many of them out there to climb much higher in the present market.

Lincoln Wheat V.D.B. on Truncation (1918-1958)

small_cents_1955DDOThe Scenario: After nine years of production without reference to its designer, Victor David Brenner’s initials finally returned to the coin in 1918, incused along the truncation of Lincoln’s bust. Outside of a few notable exceptions, this type of Lincoln cent design dominates the Wheat cent era.

The line of demarcation that separates the “classic” Lincoln cent period from the modern has traditionally been 1930. The pre-1930 period, while lacking true rarities, does boast its share of problematic pieces, especially in Mint State Red. Post-1930, it’s essentially smooth sailing, with the exception of the hoarded and constantly promoted 1931-S. The wheat cent era ended at the close of 1958 with little fanfare. In its last year of issue, few realized that the familiar design would soon fall by the wayside.

It’s a rare treat to pull a wheat cent from circulation today. The ones you do find are usually in non-collectible grades, and most were struck in the 1940s and ‘50s. In circulated grades, the typical wheat cent will net you three times face at your local coin store – if they’ll even take it. Uncirculated, the coin is still very common, and all but conditional rarities can be had at little cost.

Guidance: By far, the single most coveted Lincoln wheat cent outside of the 1909-S V.D.B. is the 1955 doubled die. Within five years of its release, the 1955 DDO was on par with the series’ first-year key date. Today, a fully red 1955 DDO is more than 50 times rarer than a red 1909-S V.D.B.

The reason we want this coin in our set is that it is dramatic, historically important, and,  perhaps more than any other coin from this period, blessed with tremendous upside potential.

In fact, with demand being what it is, finding a red 1955 DDO outside of a major auction is unlikely. When they do pop up, they’re easily placed with collectors who were already waiting for them. Perhaps a better approach, and one that will save money without sacrificing eye appeal, is to find an attractively toned RB example or even a beautifully preserved piece in a nice chocolate brown.

Lincoln Steel Cent (1943)

The Scenario:  The Treasury’s attempt to conserve copper for the war effort led to one of the nation’s most disastrous coin issues: the 1943 steel cent. While maintaining the same size and design from previous years, the new alloy made newly circulated cents look more like dimes than copper pennies. As you can imagine, this caused a few problems when the coin was introduced.

small_cents_1943s_steelFurther complicating matters, the coin’s magnetic “signature” was incompatible with vending machines and other mechanical devices[1], which is certainly nothing you’d want to see after more than a billion pieces are released into the economy.  The stopgap measure proved to be a 20-year-long headache for the Treasury as it attempted to quietly remove the steel cent from circulation.

Between 1945 and 1967, more than 163 million 1943 cents were culled, accounting for 14% of total production. Attrition and hoarding took care of the rest, so that by the ‘60s it was almost never seen in circulation.

Guidance: Going for a high-grade specimen (MS-67 is an $80-90 proposition) is fine for your run-of-the-mill type set, but we’d rather add some heat to the stew by seeking out either the 1943 or 1943-S FS-101 Doubled Die Obverse.

These naked-eye visible doubled dies exhibit a phenomenon known as “distended hub doubling”. This form of doubling adds extra thickness to the date and on the word LIBERTY.

Since they were so heavily hoarded, steel cents (both slabbed and raw) are fairly common. We imagine that, given enough diligence, one can find a nice example without paying a steep “finder’s premium”. Of course, if RPMs are your thing, then the 1943 D/D (also naked-eye visible) is another challenging and worthy pickup.

[1] Lange, David W. The Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents. 2nd ed. New York: Zyrus Press, 2005. Print. 21.

Lincoln Memorial (1959-2008)

small_cents_1972DDThe Scenario: Frank Gasparro’s Memorial cent debuted quietly in February 1959, marking the Sesquicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. It remained in production for fifty years, becoming the most-produced coin design in American history. Today, an overwhelming majority of cents in circulation bear the Lincoln Memorial design, and the majority of those now date from 1982 or later.

That’s when the inner core of the cent was changed to the cheaper (and more volatile) 99.2% zinc, 0.8% copper composition plated with pure copper. Of these, only a handful have graded MS-69. In 2003, a cent graded MS-70 by PCGS was bought back due to the development of carbon spots, after selling for $15,120.00 at a September 2006 Teletrade auction. PCGS downgraded the coin to MS-69 and currently estimates its value to be $85.00. In the world of modern cents (especially Lincolns), fortunes can be lost in a hurry.

Guidance: Continuing our theme of seeking out the curious and interesting, the Memorial period offers a surprising number of modern rarities.

There’s the 1969-S, with 30 or so known.

Then there’s the 1992 Close AM variety and its rarer Denver Mint cousin, which has a known population below 20.

You’ve got the 1990 No S Proof, a one die slip up caused by an inattentive engraving department.

And finally, there’s the 1964 Special Mint Set (prototype) specimen strike cent, perhaps the rarest of all Memorial cents (unless you count the possibly illegal to own 1974 aluminum cent).

So what to get? Well, clearly, one of the pieces listed above is ideal. For those who’d like to confine their search to coins that aren’t so limited, we say that the most visually arresting collectible Memorial cent is the 1972 Doubled Die, which serves as an outstanding counterpoint to the 1955 DDO. It’s also currently available for a fraction of the cost. But remember, as the Memorial cent fades into inevitable obscurity, choice and gem specimens of this variety will continue to dry up.
That takes care of this portion of our ultimate 20th-Century Type Set Coin Collecting Strategies. Next time, we continue our quest by focusing on nickels and dimes.

* * *

Flip of a Coin

You probably know John R. Sinnock for his work on the Roosevelt dime and Franklin half dollar, but less known is his excellent engraving work on the Purple Heart. Army heraldic specialist Elizabeth Will originated the design, which was sculpted by Sinnock in May 1931.

Some say that the word “hobby” comes from “hobbyhorse”. We don’t know about that. But one thing we can say is that horses and coin collectors do have something in common. They both share the same patron saint: St. Eligius.

Not those Frasers: Juliette May Fraser (1887-1983) may not be a household name, but she is responsible for the design of one of our most coveted classic commemoratives: the Hawaiian Sesquicentennial half dollar (1928). Fraser supplied the artwork for engraver Chester Beach, whose initials appear on the coin.

[1] http://coins.ha.com/c/item.zx?hdnJumpToLot=1&saleNo=1184%20&lotNo=1311&x=0&y=0#98559855838. Retrieved 10/4/2013.

Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker
Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker
Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker have been contributing authors on CoinWeek since 2012. They also wrote the monthly "Market Whimsy" column and various feature articles for The Numismatist and the book 100 Greatest Modern World Coins (2020) for Whitman Publishing.

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  1. I really enjoyed this article. I do believe though that since you are dealing with a type set there is more significance to the most iconic coins. Additionally many of the iconic issues in the 20th century are also first year issues, including the 1909s vdb (and 1909s for the non vdb coin, although 1914d is more iconic), 1916d mercury, 1916 standing liberty 1932s Washington.
    Another sub type not mentioned were the change in composition coins. This would include 1944-1946, 1959-1960 and the 1982 varieties.
    I am looking forward to the continuation of this article because it is really gear to the hobbyist collector and has practical strategies to improve any collection.

    • Thank you for your feedback! We wanted to conceptualize a crazily expensive way to build a type set. But our way isn’t the only way. Each approach can present similar material in new and fascinating ways.

  2. In addition to Beth’s finding, there’s a second “oops”: Current US cents are 2.5% Cu / 97.5 Zn rather than 0.8% / 99.2%

  3. I enjoyed your articles but I was wondering about the 1984 Lincoln headset. One of them is supposed to be worth up to $2,000 because it’s it’s still pure copper. Is this true?


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